Railroading for Fun and Profit: Part 1

January 2, 2012 at 8:44 am (Games)

What is Railroading?

Railroading is taking the fastest route between where your players are and where your adventure is. Railroading is about keeping the lines of communication open between you and your players so that they know where you are going and you know what they want to see when they get there. There are plenty of systems out there that need a bit of railroading to make sure the game runs smoothly. There are also systems that will fall all to pieces if you try and railroad. Railroading is not ignoring your players or ignoring your player’s impact on the world. Quite the opposite. If you ignore what your players are trying to do your railroad isn’t going to the holiday fun park but rather to the slaughter house.

Why is railroading often seen as a bad thing?

Many players have had bad experiences with GMs who believe that the only thing important in their game world is their plot. Get on that GMs plot car or get left in the dust. Plot not have thing one to do with your character? Wooptee-doo. These GMs give railroading a bad name and have, through the horror stories told by their players, colored many people’s view of what railroading is all about.

When should I railroad?

Railroading is your best option when two things are true. First, if you have a plot in mind with points along it that players should see. Second, if the system has told you, either explicitly or implicitly, that you have all of the narrative control in the game. If both of these things are true and your group is having a blast, getting things done, and not running into major hurdles that stop the game every session then ignore my advice and keep doing what is working for your group. You should only railroad when it works for your game and your group.

Why should I railroad?

You should railroad to help your players get to the fun faster and with less frustration. You should railroad to get more out of each gaming session. Use what your players have told you about their characters, both in character creation and during play to focus where you are taking your plot. Your players’ characters might not be the most important characters in the world but they are the most important in their story. Make sure they are the center of the plot you are running, even if it is a preplanned or published adventure.

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2 Comments

  1. Katie said,

    I can see, with your definition of the term, how railroading can be a useful addition to the game. I guess my own experiences with railroading have been negative, where there is NO communication between the DM & players (& it wasn’t for lack of trying on the players’ parts). I’m a pretty inexperienced DM & so I’m always afraid that I will railroad my players in a negative fashion. I like how you have showed how railroading can be useful, especially for a new DM because we don’t have the experience to draw on for unexpected situations. I look forward to your future thoughts on the subject! 🙂

    • JBMannon said,

      I’m glad it helped some. I think if you have a clear vision of where you want the game to go and your not prepared for it to go outside a certain bubble then you should be honest about that. Tell your players, “Hey I know your all excited to go look at X but I only brought notes on Y for tonight, can you hold on to that enthusiasm for next week and go check out Y? I promise it will be cool! I’ve dropped a little something in there for each of your characters and who knows? Maybe by the time you guys get to the bottom of Y I’ll give you a shiny that will help you when you go face X!”

      I ran a lot of modules back in 3.5 and I love the Adventure Paths and D&D Encounters stuff but if you don’t railroad them a bit a module could take a year to run. Don’t laugh but my group spent six months in the Sunless Citadel when we first played D&D. I should have railroaded them a bit more but I didn’t know that then. I eventually started having random things happen to them and the town as the corrupt tree thing (you’ll have to forgive me it was about ten years ago) started to spread it’s corruption all over Oakhurst.

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